Reading & Leeds boss Melvin Benn: “Next year we’ll have two main stages and six headliners”

The R&L boss tells us what to expect from 2021 – including the line-up, site changes and coronavirus testing

“This would normally be when scores of enthusiastic youngsters are on site for the best weekend of their lives,” Reading & Leeds boss Melvin Benn wistfully tells NME on the eve of what would have been one of the loudest weekends of the year. Oh, what we’d give to be up at Bramham Park or down at Little John’s Farm right now to see a little more musical history being made. Still, Benn has no time to dwell on the past.

“There have been more Reading Festivals than Glastonbury Festivals, but we don’t celebrate our heritage in the same way,” he continues. “Reading and Glastonbury started in the same year, but we don’t take time off. There have been a lot more Readings in that sense. Nothing compares with Glastonbury, but we’re more about looking forwards than back.”

When R&L 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19, Benn and his team returned to the drawing board to get some pretty big plans on the go for their return next year. We caught up with the Festival Republic boss to talk about 2021’s line-up, evolution, Coronavirus testing at live events, and the idea of free bacon for all.

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Hello Melvin. Sad to not be at Reading & Leeds this weekend, isn’t it? Who were you most looking forward to seeing?

“It’s difficult for me to see beyond Rage Against The Machine, quite frankly. I’m a big fan and the times they played before were incredible shows for us. When we first announced them, we used some footage of their ‘96 show because it’s just indelibly printed in my mind as being utterly extraordinary. They came on stage with no fanfare, just said, ‘We’re Rage Against The Machine from Los Angeles, California’ and burst into possibly the most explosive set I’ve ever seen at Reading. There was a lot more crowdsurfing then and there was a point where we were receiving about 180 people a minute, coming over the barrier. It was just absolutely insane.”

That would have been a moment.

“It would have been very special for me to see them again, but the great thing about Reading & Leeds is that it doesn’t stand still. You probably could have picked about 50-100 other acts that would have been more important to everyone else. We’re always happy to have a nod to the past, but we live in today and tomorrow. We never stop moving on.”

Those insane moments for new talent are always refreshing – like Billie Eilish’s set last year…

“It was unbelievable. I’d seen her at Glastonbury on The Other Stage and just thought, ‘Jesus, we’ve got to move her on the main stage at Reading’. At Reading, Leeds and Lollapalooza Berlin, it was just mad. We don’t want to stop that, it’s what we love about music. Someone recently asked me about innovation, and the music industry never stands still so it’s innovative all the time. It’s the artists who keep moving us forwards.”

Is there anything you’re innovating for Reading & Leeds in 2021?

“COVID has given us a year off, so the innovation for next year is testing – everybody will be tested. We’re also going to reproduce the main stage twice. What was the second stage is going to be elevated to an equal stage with the same presentation. What that really allows us to do is book six acts that are headliners.”

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Foo Fighters at Reading
Foo Fighters at Reading Festival 2019. Credit: Jenn Five/NME

That’s got to be a worldwide first?

“When we first took over Reading Festival in 1989, the idea that there would even be two stages of acts playing at the same time was innovative. People were like, ‘Two bands playing at once? You can’t do that, Melvin’. We were like, ‘Yeah we can, just watch’. Now festivals have hundreds of stages at once.”

So will all six headliners be of an equal level?

“Yes, very much.

A lot of festivals have just taken their line-up from this year into 2021. Is that not the case for Reading & Leeds?

“No, I was very clear and determined about that. The idea that the 2020 line-up would work perfectly well for 2021? No, it’s not happening – not for Reading & Leeds. We just wiped the slate clean and started again. There will be one headliner that will repeat, but that’s the only one. Someone asked if we should just book the same thing, but we’ve never done that so why would we start now? We’d be a year out of date.”

Is the whole line-up in place?

“Yes, we’re announcing everything next week. The line-up will be going up on Monday.”

Can you give us any clues who’s on it?

“No!”

What if we asked you if any of them had headlined before?

“Every one of them is a first time headliner.

Will there be a lot of acts lower down the 2020 bill returning next year?

“Of course, there will still be some. There’s a pile of acts that would have just scraped into the bottom of the bill for 2020 who are now demanding to be heard by thousands and thousands of people. There will be some acts that are now on an entirely different slot or stage because of their elevation.”

Blossoms at Reading Festival 2019. Credit: Jenn Five/NME

What can you tell us about the overall vibe and mix of genres on the bill?

“I think we’ve got the mix right. It’s the most all encompassing and inclusive Reading & Leeds line-up ever. The double main stage allows us to offer that. There’s no shortage of great music and our bill is in great shape.”

How do you feel about the current climate facing festival season next year?

“I’m very confident that it’s going to happen, and I’m very confident that it’s going to be remarkably similar to what it’s always been like. There are some things that you cannot change. You can’t tell a bunch of 16-year-olds to go camp carefully with social distancing. They’d just go, ‘Fuck off, Melvin’. You know what? I’d be really pleased that they said ‘Fuck off, Melvin’ because that’s what I’d want them to say. Most young people are going about their business the way that they always have. They’re not social distancing, they’re hanging out with their mates, and because they’ve got a lot more brains than when I was young they know they need to be careful around granny and granddad.”

So festivals could happen with or without a vaccination?

“We don’t need a vaccination because we can work through the problem with a really good testing regime. We’ll be able to do this by next year. If there is a vaccine, there will be sufficient for the old and the vulnerable. Young people can resist it. The government know that now. In March and April, they didn’t know that. Everybody was shit-scared and that’s inevitable, but as we’ve learned more, we know the strong and healthy are able to survive it.”

Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish at Reading 2019. Credit: Jenn Five

So widespread testing is the key?

“We’ll get there with testing and tracing. It will become the new norm. One of the government advisors, Professor John Bell, was talking really positively about the norm becoming everyone testing themselves twice a week in the near future – as in, within the next few months. We’ll learn to do that until we suppress the disease until it dies like SARS did.”

Are you still pursuing your Full Capacity Plan to have testing part of entry to all festivals?

“Yes, very much so. It will be all-encompassing. It will probably be the government’s version of the Full Capacity Plan, which is even bigger than what mine was. There will be some sort of test. By the time August 2021 comes around, it will take 10 minutes. You can see the kids outside doing it – who can neck a pint quickest, who can do a test quickest? It will all be automated on phones. We’re in a stage where technology can really help, and the Reading & Leeds audience really understand technology. I have no pessimism about it. Of course we’ll overcome it. This year everyone was too scared – but we understand it now.”

And most importantly, would you ever consider offering all ticketholders a free bacon sandwich like you did back in 2012?

“The environmental impact of bacon is immense. I must be the only vegetarian in the world who has given away that many bacon sandwiches for free! They won’t be coming back. They did go down well, though.”

This weekend, the BBC will be showing highlight sets from recent Reading & Leeds festivals. See the the full schedule here.

The next Reading & Leeds Festival will take place Friday 27 – Sunday 29 August, 2021. The line-up announcement will be made on Monday August 30, 2021. Visit here for tickets and more information.

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